Saturday, October 24, 2015

Crimson Peak (**)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro


Guillermo del Toro sure knows how to make a movie look good. The main set of Crimson Peak is a crumbling mansion in rural England built upon a vast landscape seeping with red clay. It's seeping so much that the decrepit building is actually sinking into it. The inside of the place is creaky, a lot of pipes rusted black, a hole in the ceiling where snow falls neatly in a pristine pile in the middle of the entrance floor. The whole scene is delectable - it's meant to come off as unsettling, it instead seems sugary and enticing. Del Toro can't help but make it pretty, but this film doesn't match the frivolity of Pacific Rim and Hellboy, it's story is more tender. The Mexican director often deals with stories so brutal and grotesque, and tends to excel within grand set pieces and wondrous costumes. Pan's Labyrinth is his masterpiece, a film that so perfectly translates his career long obsession with blending the blessed fantasy of imagination with the true horrors of real life. Crimson Peak, is about the same thing, but it is also rooted in the gothic romances of the nineteenth century, filled with monsters both human and inhuman. Sticking this in theaters a few weeks before Halloween seems like an obvious choice, until you realize that del Toro's creepy thrills are not the cheap kind that comes with most horror films these days. His taste is bloody, malicious and the philosophies of his scripts are untrusting of the human spirit. Watching this film feels almost autobiographical, because what other conclusions can one draw about humanity when you see what the characters of Crimson Peak are capable of?

A true ghost story in the vain of Mary Shelley (whom the film does credence by name-dropping), Crimson Peak is a truly carnivorous haunt, a melodrama unafraid to spill into camp with its performances and its visuals. It's ghosts aren't simply ethereal spirits, but pained, writhing creatures, forced into an existence worse than death. One of these ghosts is the mother of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman who works with her father, Carter (Jim Beaver), a generically wealthy American businessman. Edith's mother died when she was 10 and visits her ever so often, shrouded in black shadows, with a vacant, swollen face, always warning her daughter to "beware of Crimson Peak". Edith's experience with ghosts effects her hobby as a fiction writer; she writes a manuscript that is a ghost story, but when she shows it to a publisher, she's advised to add a love story. The only person who seems to admire Edith's writing is a visiting Englishman, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who's in town to pitch his business model to Carter in hopes to attract an investor. Carter has little interest in Sharpe's idea - a machine to mine the clay lying underneath his English estate - and is possessed with a floating, unplaceable dislike for Thomas, a dislike that only grows when he sees Edith's interest in him. When it becomes clear that Edith and Thomas are falling in love, Carter advises Thomas and his somber sister, Lucille (a perfectly chilling Jessica Chastain), to leave the country immediately. When Carter is soon after killed under malicious circumstances, a clueless Edith, in deep mourning, travels with Thomas and Lucille to England and marries herself into the notorious Sharpe family.

They arrive at Allerdale Hall, a centuries-old, dilapidated mansion struggling to hold onto an aging beauty. Sharpe was able to procure the money for his clay mining machine when Edith inherited Carver's estate, and life in the crumbling home begins. Almost immediately, Edith is approached by ghosts, ghosts of women caught in perpetual reenactment of their deaths. The living tenants of Allerdale aren't any better. Thomas is loving, but seems suspiciously uninterested in consummating the marriage - he's allowing his young bride to grieve for her father, he claims. As for Lucille, her coldness toward her new sister-in-law is unnerving and blatantly hostile, she refuses to make copies of the house keys, does little in the way to ease Edith into her new home, and dismisses her visions of ghosts as restlessness. As Edith begins to become ill, she begins to question her place within Allerdale Hall. Back in America, a friend of the Cushing family, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), seems to be the only person who finds Carver's death suspicious, and begins to wonder whether a trip to England is necessary for Edith's safety. Crimson Peak's screenplay, by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, is a hodgepodge of Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe, filled with stiff dialogue and a lot of set-ups that don't hold up very well under scrutiny. How does a couple of outsiders as strange and foreboding as the Sharpe siblings walk out of America without suspicion? How does Edith not even question Thomas after her father's death? A single breath can topple the house of cards.

It doesn't seem like the screenplay even matters to del Toro here. It's all just foreplay for his monstrosities. It's not enough to have ferocious ghosts, but the people we see have to be monstrous as well. There's a fierceness to Chastain's performance here that hasn't been seen from her before; she appears to be the only person in the cast that seems to understand the kind of melodrama that a script like this deserves. She displays the mystery of the Sharpe family as if it isn't a mystery at all, Chastain's eyes are the biggest spoiler. Mia Wasikowska has been quietly building an impressive resumé, and anyone who saw her last year in The Double knows that she's much more than Tim Burton's life-sized Alice in Wonderland doll. Earlier this year, I saw her in Maps to the Stars, which was a mess of a film, but allowed her to play all of her quirks right on the screen - it was something to behold. In Crimson Peak, she's not given the same emotional complexity, it always seems like Edith is too smart to be put in these situations, and while Wasikowska gives an admirable performance, it's hard to understand why she was even cast in the role when the character is so vapid. Much of the same can be said of Hiddleston, who's doing his best to guide himself into a character whose motivations are never clear until the end, and then they seem very unrealistic. Peak lacks the existential weight of Pan's Labyrinth (which was also written by del Toro), but doesn't have the stomach to be as nonchalant as Pacific Rim. It sticks itself into a no man's land, where all it has to show for itself are some impressive set pieces and a lot of fake blood. 

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